A woman's journey breaking down barriers in two male-dominated fields

By Small BusinessFOXBusiness

Forging a path for women on corporate boards

NYSE Board member Jill Griffin on efforts to increase the number of women on corporate boards.

Jean Brownhill has more than a decade of experience in design and construction. The trained architect has managed multi-million dollar renovations in the Hamptons and New York City. Yet even Brownhill was frustrated when she decided to renovate her Brooklyn, New York townhouse.

Continue Reading Below

“I was digging through phone books,” she says. “Asking my neighbors. Going online. Having random tradespeople show up at my house. It was a really frustrating experience. It was the moment I thought, this is crazy. I know this doesn’t have to be this way. I know there is a better way for regular people to get high-quality construction and design resources and I think I know how to do it.”

Brownhill’s solution was Sweeten. Sweeten is a free service that matches homeowners and business owners with vetted general contractors. Renovations range from $15,000 to more than $5 million. From setting a scope and budget to comparing estimates, Sweeten oversees everything from start to finish. Once the project is posted on the website, the process begins.

The project is then matched with a shortlist of contractors according to their specifications. General contractors pay the company a percentage of the work they are awarded. Sweeten supports the contractor by helping them with marketing, customer service, their portfolios and press.

“Most of the GC’s when they come to us, they are booking $500,000 a year,” says Brownhill, founder and CEO of Sweeten. “In a couple of years, we’ve seen folks go up as high as $4 million a year. The only thing they have changed in their business is that they have joined the Sweeten network.”

The Sweeten platform is available in the New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles areas. The platform is scheduled to launch in Miami and Chicago on Sept. 1. Brownhill’s plan is to be in the top 35 renovation spending cities in 2020.

In 2017, Sweeten expanded into commercial projects such as restaurants, retail and offices. The company has almost $1 billion in residential and commercial construction projects in the pipeline. Brownhill reflects how Sweeten has grown since she started the company in 2011.

“Day one, that meant a lot of phone calls,” she says. “A lot of emails. There was no platform. I had a huge Excel sheet. It was all hand-done in the beginning until I was able to raise venture capital and build a platform that allows us to process thousands and thousands of renovations at one time.”

Brownhill is one of the few black female entrepreneurs to raise $1 million in venture capital. Overall, she has raised nearly $10 million in funding. Brownhill also points out the challenges she has faced working in two male-dominated industries: construction and venture-backed technology. She takes it all in stride.

“One of the strategies I learned is that I name it really quickly,” she says. “I will get in front of it. I will make a joke or I will say something about being the only woman in the room. To investors, I will say, I know you don’t see a lot of people that look like me. But here’s how we are going to win.”

Brownhill is not only planning on winning in the United States but around the world. She says there has been interest in the Sweeten platform internationally.

“This idea of home sweet home is a feeling that everybody knows,” she says. “It’s across nations. It’s across religions. Everybody knows what that feeling is. It just looks very different for a lot of different people. Sweeten is just us helping you manifest that for yourselves. We are helping you get closer to that feeling of home sweet home.”

Linda Bell joined FOX Business Network (FBN) in 2014 as an assignment editor. She is an award-winning writer of business and financial content. You can follow her on Twitter @lindanbell